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Unknown Pleasures: 10 of the best new Steam games

More diamonds in the rough

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Welcome back to Unknown Pleasures, our weekly round-up of ten promising but under-reported games from the torrent of new releases on Steam over the past seven days. I play a glut of titles for ten minutes each, discard any rotten ones, then choose which ten make the weekly round-up, as well as picking one stand-out favourite.

This week: myriad monochrome, haunted ice stations, smart shump remixes and the singular glory of painted lines.

Conarium

An unashamedly Lovecraft-inspired first-person adventure-horror game, lookin’ mighty fine thanks to the Unreal Engine but soundin’ mighty silly thanks to an English-feigning lead actor whose every spoken line is a world tour. I suspect this is the kind of game that struggles to make its case if only played for ten minutes, but then again the terrifying likes of FINDING A ROLL OF SELLOTAPE and LOCKER FULL OF SMALL EASTER ISLAND STATUES aren’t the most immediate hooks.

Oppressively swirling snowstorms and a gloomily-lit, half-abandoned arctic base do lend Conarium some Thing-like atmosphere, however, and I’m curious to discover if it finds a rhythm – and its horror feet – despite an underwhelming start.

Monolith

Though initially causing consternation in the RPS chatroom due to a mistaken belief that it was something new from the studio behind FEAR, Blood and Shadow of Mordor, the good news is that this is a wee humdinger. Y’know how The Binding Of Isaac is a pairing of bullet-hell shmup and roguelike? This is that idea inverted – roguelike proc-gen and upgrade structure hung around actual pew-pew spaceship shooting. A shmup in which navigation through a network of random rooms is a logistical puzzle, rather than a linear run through handcrafted screens. It works extremely well – though lacking the clever-sick visual invention of Isaac, it’s got an air of gothic strangeness to its enemies and environments, and pulls off that permadeath just-one-more-try thing without feeling hollow. I’m definitely keeping this one around.

Drifting Lands

Also performing eugenics experiments on shmups and RPG concepts, Drifting Lands is an attractive side-scrolling shooter with a big emphasis on creating your own bespoke powerset. Feels a little like R-Type with a purpose beyond high scores, in that you’ll end each mission with a clutch of loot, money and points to spend on tailoring your ship to your preferred playstyle. It tries a bit too hard to push a rather flat storyline, and the tutorial section is something of a pop-up message assault on the senses, but the action feels like a sweet spot between manic and tactical, and I’m digging the highly tweakable upgrade path. I’m not usually much of a shmup fan, but this makes two I’m going to leave on my hard drive this week.

Zzzz-Zzzz-Zzzz

I have learned, over the years, to fear the self-proclaimed philosophical or psychological platformer – that legion of Braid descendants that feel they can say something meaningful about the human condition through the medium of repeatedly jumping and failing. The signs from afar for Z-Z-Z were not good – pseudo-profound quotes about dreaming and waking life, and spartan shots of endless platforms. The reality is something much more intriguing – a vaguely Metroid-structured series of challenges that combine jumping with interpretation of opaque dialogue. Even this early on, I found that it kept playing against type, surprising me with the nature of its obstacles and pulling off an appropriately dream-like slow unfurling of its oddball internal logic. My suspicion is that there is significant invention hiding underneath an unassuming surface, and I will indeed dig to see if that’s true.

Hell Warders

A more multiplayer-skewed Orcs Must Die, with just a touch of Warhammer-lite to it. It’s tower defence meets third-person stabbing/shooting (with a choice of classes to play as), but rather than placing towers and turrets you’re setting down units – pikemen and canonneers and demons and whatnot. Though this is primarily a visual change – the units pretty much stay in place and chop/shoot at anything which comes within range – it does make matches feel that much more like a battle rather than Home Alone. I’m not in love with the fact that unit/tower types you can place depends on which floating orbs you collect as you fling yourself about the place, but at the same time it’s a refreshing change from the usual waiting for resources to rack up until you can afford x or y. Pretty well put-together, I’d say, and again the units definitely have a touch to the Warhammers to them, in a time when tower defency stuff tends to incline towards the ‘toonier type of fantasy. There are single player challenges as well as multiplayer, and it’s in pretty good shape for an early access title.

Lines

Right then, this is lovely. It’s a minimalist puzzle game about painting lines, except it’s so laid-back that you don’t even paint the lines – you just dab a little dot on the ‘page’ then it automagically flows in any direction it can. If it covers more of the pattern than the other (AI-controlled) players, then you win. What perhaps sounds dry on paper is ten seconds of gentle tension in practice, as you use a combination of intuition and luck to divine a smart starting point. The tranquil piano soundtrack is reactive, so you get chirpier or anxious plinks and plonks depending on how your lines are doing, and all told it’s a purely joyful experience. A single idea executed with real panache – and wonderfully inventive about the ‘levels’ too. Racing paintlines across a silhouette of the Sydney opera house…

The Wall

A stealth-action game inspired by – and acting as a protest against – Chinese internet censorship. The over-literal interpretation of Tron-ish data-people using pickaxes to break down blockages placed around ‘GOOGLEE’ and ‘YouTobe’ is all a bit sixth form rather than in any way informative, but there’s decent tension to trying to find tools, keys and weapons while evading armed guards. If caught, you have a few seconds in which to cease all resistance and return to the shuffling queues of the obedient, which also lends it a race against time feel. It’s a bit messy in terms of balance and difficulty, though in fairness is in early access still, and I rather get the sense that it’ll be a short-lived affair (but it is only a couple of quid). Still: there’s some thoughtful stealth here, and as a record of another culture’s protest, it’s intriguing.

Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap

Remake of a late-80s Master System game I’d never previously heard of. It’s a heavily timing-based platformer, with a nice line in requiring you to figure out your route around the castle – choose the wrong exit and you’ll be lobbed back a few rooms. This gives it an ever so slightly Metroid feel, in that you’re really learning the layout and even making a few leaps of faith. The standout feature, though, is surely the super-crisp art, newly redone for this version, and which looks like someone just drew their webcomic directly onto my monitor. It’s not quite for me, as boss fight timing feels like a bit of a grind, but it’s slick and pretty and full marks for the title screen logo switching to ‘Wonder Girl’ if you pick the women character option.

Armed with Wings: Rearmed

Strikingly attractive side-scrolling action game, and again a remake of something I’d managed to miss, in this case a 2008 Flash game from Newgrounds. The monochrome, silhouette-based art works very well, and very much comes across as style rather than a gimmick, while puzzle-solving hinges around using a pet eagle to find items and push switches for, rather than the endless jumping the screenshot might suggest. In fact, jumping is essentially automatic here, the focus instead being on intense slicey-dicey combat with an array of different weapons, so it wouldn’t be right to refer to this as platformer, despite appearances. It’s a familiar thing in its way, but it’s very well done.

Crowman & Wolfboy

Another black and white side-scroller, though despite some impressively apocalyptic cutscene work, the in-game art isn’t as impressive as Armed With Wings’. C&W maintains a menacing tone, however, blending a nightmare fuel soundtrack with constant pursuit by ‘the darkness’ – though not as terrifying as being chased down a blind alley by a big-toothed faux-metaller from the noughties. This is a fusion of trad. platformer and endless runner: you can’t stop moving cos the darkness will catch you, which means there are hard choices to be made in terms of which places you actually try and reach. There’s some interesting physics too, in that you have limited flight – Crowman picks up Wolfboy, but his weight means he’ll only briefly stay aloft, and working out how to best use this while something all-consuming forever snaps at your heels is the key challenge. Well-crafted for sure, but silhouettey platformers are beginning to overstay their welcome these days.

That’s the ten, which brings me to choosing my pick of the week. This time, it’s…

Lines!

A wonderful little thing, gorgeous and clever, total unison of idea and aesthetic, and deftly put me into a tranquil state of mind despite today being a particularly stressful day for much of the United Kingdom.

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Alec Meer

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